by Dan Swanson
On the same night that Lily had captured the three thugs, on a dark road about forty miles away, another gasoline tanker was stopping at an intersection. Once again, a hooded figure stood up across the intersection and removed his hood. The truck lurched and the engine stalled, because the now-unconscious driver’s foot slipped off the clutch. The man put his hood back on, walked across the street, and climbed into the truck.
The hooded man liked to think of himself as a Robin Hood-style mystery-man, robbing from the rich and giving to the poor, and also as something of an intellectual. His code name for himself was the Oculist. (*) For the moment his costume consisted of a hood and dark clothes, to make him less visible at night, but he had plans for a real mystery-man-style costume someday. He was leaning toward a suit, hat, and domino mask, similar to the Spirit. Well, it wasn’t exactly like the Spirit, he realized. He would have to make some adjustments to the mask. But that would be pretty simple.
[(*) Editor’s note: See Secret Origins: Times Past, 1943: The Secret Origin of the Oculist.]
The Oculist was quite surprised to find three men in the cab of the truck rather than just the driver, all of whom were wearing gas masks. “Didn’t do them a lot of good, did it?” he smirked to himself. “Wonder who these other guys are?”
The other guys had badges identifying themselves as FBI agents, and both were armed. The Oculist took everything he could carry from the three unconscious men, tied them up with strips torn from their own clothes, and started the truck. He drove jerkily away, grinding the gears and shifting at the wrong times. Unlike the hijacking last night, he was alone, and he clearly had little experience driving big rigs.
He drove several miles out of his way and dumped his unconscious prisoners on the side of the road, then took off into the night. If the FBI was on his trail, it was time to get out of the gasoline-truck-hijacking business, at least for a while. He already knew what he would sell next — tires. He hoped the rest of his boys finished off that other item tonight. He needed to focus his attention on planning, and until that other issue was settled, it would continue to distract him.
What he didn’t know was that the FBI agents in the cab had been on a tight schedule. The FBI had scouted the truck’s route and mapped out every pay-phone along the way. This particular truck was stopping at every pay-phone, and one of the agents was reporting their progress. There was similar surveillance of the other thirty-seven trucks that had left the Standard Oil refinery in Cleveland that day.
All the hijacked trucks came from this same refinery. They had followed the same routes for years. If the operation tonight didn’t catch the hijackers, the routes would secretly be changed, starting tomorrow.
But tonight, when the agents in this particular truck didn’t report in, the FBI swung into action. Within a half an hour, they had discovered the car hidden near the hijacking site. Not that it gave them any clues; it had been reported stolen earlier that day in a town west of Cleveland, and the plates had been stolen the day before someplace near Columbus. They couldn’t pull any useful prints; apparently the thief had worn gloves. So they were pretty disappointed in their catch for the night. Little did they know that another source was about to give them a major break in the case.
The Oculist drove his truck to a warehouse in Twinsburg, accepted payment in cash, picked up his own car, and headed home. He didn’t warn the people in the warehouse that the FBI was getting close to them. He didn’t owe them anything, and he had always been unhappy with the price he was getting for each truck of gasoline, anyway. He thought they were stiffing him, but he didn’t have any other place to get rid of the trucks as well as the gasoline, so he had taken what he could get. But if the FBI caught these guys, it was no skin off his nose.
They had no clue as to who he really was; he had always worn his hood when dealing with them, except the one time he had been forced to demonstrate his power. It was funny, how much more respectful they had become once they had awakened tied up. He clearly could have killed them all, but he preferred to do business. And he had been driving a different stolen car each time he showed up here.
He drove to the town where he had acquired his current car and left it parked on a residential street. His own car was parked about a mile away, so he ran there and finally made his way home. He was pleased to see that the kids he had hired had mowed his lawn and trimmed his hedges. The inside of the house was spotless. It ought to be; he had paid that cleaning crew a lot.
The Oculist hid his hood under a loose board in his bedroom, threw the clothes in his laundry hamper, and had a beer. So what if it was seven o’clock in the morning — hadn’t he earned it? One beer led to a second, and then a third, and then, by damn, the case was empty. Well, it was breakfast time, anyway, and he could buy more beer later. He made breakfast, making a mess and not bothering to clean it up — why should he, since he had a maid now? — and then took a short nap. Around 11:30 that morning he got dressed and headed into town. He didn’t know it, but he was in for a lot of excitement.
Lily DeLuna had arranged to meet Rich Spooner for lunch before the ball game. They were sitting in the shade of an umbrella at an outdoor table. Her parents had decided to do some shopping, which Lily appreciated. The two were talking baseball; Rich had seen the Hawks play the Mud Hens earlier in the season and was telling Lily about that game. Suddenly, they heard a police siren, and a car flew past the restaurant, going much too fast. Quickly, the reason became clear, as a town sheriff’s patrol car roared by in hot pursuit.
“That’s Biff’s car!” Rich yelled. “Geez, I hope he doesn’t hurt anyone driving like that. I wonder why he’s running from the police?”
Lily had no idea, although she was starting to form some suspicions. Biff Redondo was the only person she knew about who might want to hurt her — well, except for Freeda Hammond, who was in prison. Two nights ago, she had seen four people hijack a gasoline tank truck. Last night, three goons, driving a car that might have been the same one the hijackers had used, had tried to hurt her, or worse. And Biff had been rolling in dough recently. There was still the mystery of why she and the truck driver had passed out. Well, if the police caught Biff, that mystery might be explained. She really itched to be involved, but it looked as if she would only read about it like everyone else.
Just before they finished their lunch, the squad car rolled back down the street. The front left fender was smashed, and the car was covered with mud. As the car stopped for a stop sign, Rich recognized the driver as Tracey Thomas, the older brother of one of his friends. Both deputies were also covered with mud, and they had no prisoner. It looked like Biff had escaped. Rich yelled to Tracey, who stopped the car and got out to talk to them. Tracey knew Rich had once been close friends with Biff. Maybe he could help them figure out where Biff had gone.
“Hey, Spooner, didn’t you used to hang out with Biff Redondo? Well, he’s in mighty big trouble now, and you could maybe help me find him.” The deputy was just barely containing his temper, and Rich was just about catching it because he had once been Biff’s friend. “We lost him down by the river — you know that old dirt road? He must have took a turnoff that we missed, because we went around a corner through a pretty deep puddle and then smack into a tree! At the speed he was going, he couldn’t’a missed that puddle, but we found no tracks. Took us a good twenty minutes to get the car out of the muck. He must’a been familiar with that road. So whatta you know?”
“We used to go down there to shoot his dad’s pistols, a few years ago!” Rich remembered. “We built a kind of fort down there, right by the river. Sometimes we’d go there to fish, too.”
Tracey turned to his partner. “You radio back to the station and get us some help.” He turned back to Rich. “I hope you ain’t busy right now, Spooner, ’cause you’re coming with us! Hop in!”
Lily decided she wanted to go along, too. The deputy was in a hurry and didn’t have time or the inclination to argue. “Just stay outta the way, girlie! If you get hurt, better remember you insisted on comin’ along!”
Lily’s suspicions about Biff were confirmed by the deputy’s radio conversation with his dispatcher. “Some guys what got busted last night by some broad.” Lily smiled to herself, but didn’t say anything. “Den ratted to the FBI. They’s was the gang that was hijacking gas trucks, and Redondo was the boss. The Feds is sending some special agents to catch Redondo!” she heard. “Be careful; they t’ink this Redondo guy is one of dose mystery-men. They don’t know how, but he can knock you out from across da road. The Feds t’ought it might be some kind of sleepy gas, but gas masks din’t help. They want you to wait and let them go in first!”
“Boarspit!” roared Deputy Thomas. “This is my town, and this is my collar! You tell them Feds to stay outta my way!” The car sped off, sirens blaring and lights flashing. “I don’t believe in that mystery-man crap! And even if he is some kind of mystery-man, I’ll bet a couple’a my bullets will stop him, just like any other cheap crook!” Thomas figured if Biff wasn’t scared of guns, he wouldn’t have run away. Well, he’d show those nosey Feds just what kind of good a small-town lawman could be.
“Sandy, tell them Feds how to get down to the river road on 531. Make ’em think I’m cooperating with ’em. The other end of that dirt road where we lost Redondo runs inta 531 on the left, just before the bridge. That way, if he tries to come out that end, he’ll run right inta them! But I’ll get him first.”
Sandy, the dispatcher, was amused. “And it will take them an extra twenty minutes to get there, huh? Good idea! I’ll send Jackson and Henderson out your way as backup. Save a piece for me, will you? I owe that Redondo creep a little something myself! Dispatch out!”